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(Acknowledgment: Special Thanks to Matthew Chuang and Leonard Li for their insightful comments on this piece.) 
 

Introduction

This paper consists of three parts. In the first part, I outline the central claims of Effective Altruism (‘EA’ herein). In the second part, I reconstruct the institutional critique of EA. In the third part, I respond to the institutional critique of EA as raised in the earlier part. The three theses I present in this part are as follows: 

 

First, I argue that one of the responses from Brian Berkey to the institutional critique may not be able to fully address the concern over EA failing to promote other values like justice. This is due to, I argue, his rather parochial conception of justice as ‘equality of resources’. 

 

Second, there may be strong political and economic reasons for EA to consider expending efforts to promote institutional reform by developing strategies to increase the likelihood of its success and make it more effective through research. It is therefore not necessarily true that all proponents of the institutional critique seem to endorse that, as Berkey claims, there are strong moral reasons for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional reform as proponents of the institutional critique can believe that there are only (non-moral) political and economic reasons for individuals to do so.

 

Third, current literature of EA does not provide a detailed and clear account of what an institutional change is or can be like, and therefore seems to have (at least sometimes) conflated ‘institutional change’ with ‘revolution’. An institutional change is not necessarily, I argue, a revolution which was radical in nature. If there is another conception of institutional change available, and research shows that institutional change under such conception can, to a great extent, align with the central claims of EA, EA may have a good reason to divert more resources to promote institutional changes of a certain kind. 

 

I. The central claims of EA 

What problem does EA intend to address? Williams MacAskill (2016, pp. 14-15) believes that EA is “about asking, ‘How can I make the biggest differences I can?’” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to address it. This is a pressing problem that is worth our attention, partly because studies has found that people often do less good with their donations than they could have done by donating to less effective charities. This also highlights one of the distinctive features of EA – while there may be many different ways to ‘make the biggest differences’, it seems to me that EA, based on ‘evidence and careful reasoning’, thinks that effective donation is primarily one of the best ways to do so. Peter Singer (2015) writes that ‘[E]ffective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can…Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place.’ EA is also considered as ‘partly a research field, which aims to identify the world’s most pressing problems and the best solutions to them, and it’s partly a practical community that aims to use those findings to do good’ (Harvard Law School Effective Altruism, n. d.). 

 

Based on these definitions of EA, I believe the central claims of EA can be formulated in the following ways: 

  1. By ‘effective’ altruism or the ‘biggest’ differences, it refers to EA aiming at maximising the good with the resources directed from the better-off to efforts to address morally significant issues, e.g. to mitigate global poverty, reducing AI risk, etc.
  2. By maximising the ‘good’, it refers to EA (at least tentatively) primarily aiming at impartially promoting increases the welfare and/or quality of life for individuals.
  3. For altruism to be effective, altruistic decisions made by EA will have to be informed by research that is methodically scientific so that EA would be able to do the most good (in welfarist terms).

 

The often cited trachoma example would be useful to illustrate how (1) – (3) may look like in practice (Berkey, 2018; MacAskill, 2016) : it is found (i.e. (3)) that ‘a US $100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness’ whereas ‘it costs US$50000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world’. Given that we have to do the most good with a given unit of resources (i.e. (1)), we should donate to a charity recommended by effective altruists that aims at curing people from trachoma. It is because, say, for every US$50000 donation, one can either improve the quality of life of a blind person in the developed world by providing him with one guide dog or improve that of 500 blind people in the developing world by saving them from trachoma. Also, the marginal benefits of making donations to efforts to curing blindness in the developing world are much greater than that of making donations to efforts to training guide dogs in the developed world because the latter is merely to further improve the quality of life of people who already live in the developed world. In other words, as each dollar donated to curing blindness in the developing world is clearly much more effectively used than each dollar donated to training guide dogs in the developed world in terms of maximising the good, we should, as EA believes, rather choose to donate to efforts to cure blindness in the developing world. 

 

II. The institutional critique of EA

What ‘effective’ means? 

Unsurprisingly, proponents of the institutional critique tend to reject (1). Lisa Herzog (2015) writes that EA’s effort to address problems like global poverty through charity has been ineffective because it has left the social status quo untouched: 

…the most dangerous underlying assumption in the worldview of effective 

altruists [is] that they take the current institutional order as given, implicitly 

denying that it is open to change… for change to be effective, we need to 

change the institutions and practices of today’s world…one of our greatest 

responsibilities is to try to change the structures of capitalism-gone-wild that 

does so much harm… 

In her view, charity as a way to address global poverty would be ineffective because it does nothing to change the social structure that creates and sustains poverty, namely capitalism. In other words, the dispute between Herzog and EA is mainly that they have different conceptions of what ‘effective’ means. Herzog believes that altruism is effective only if it can eliminate the root cause of the problem that we tend to address, whereas EA holds that ‘effective’ means maximizing the good with each unit of resources given. For EA, efforts to promote institutional change are arguably ineffective as there is little chance for an institutional change to succeed and therefore the expected value of promoting institutional change might be low. But Herzog believes that EA should try to make an institutional change regarding capitalism if we are to address global poverty effectively and if it is true that the root cause of global poverty is capitalism. 

Justice-based moral reason for institutional change 

Some even take the criticism by Herzog further and argue that that EA’s promotion of efforts to providing aid to those in poverty via charity or other means of the same sort is tantamount to allying themselves with the unjust institutions of global capitalism that ‘perpetuate the suffering they aim to relieve’ (Berkey, 2018, pp. 149).

A clarification to be made first: EA has promoted an 80,000 Hours campaign, in which it previously emphasized that individuals should consider choosing a lucrative career such as investment banking, corporate law, or management consulting, so that they would be able to donate a significant portion of their salaries to the most effective charities, even though choosing careers of this kind might reinforce the bad social effects global capitalism brings about (Srinivasan, 2015). The reason for recommending such career choices is that, as MacAskill used to argue, someone else would take the banking job if you didn’t, so the harm would be done anyway. But if the banking job is taken by proponents of EA, we can at least ensure that good can be effectively done with the salaries earned from taking the banking job. But MacAskill does later give up on this line of thinking and concedes that “it’s harder than they initially thought to evaluate the counterfactuals” (Srinivasan, 2015, pp. 4) because while encouraging individuals to go into banking would increase the total number of bankers, it might not really change who does the banking. 80,000 Hours therefore now “encourages people to take what it sees as morally neutral or positive jobs: quantitative hedge-fund trading, management consulting, technology start-ups” (Srinivasan, 2015, pp. 4).

But I believe the further criticism of EA in relation to 80,000 Hours still carries some weight even after EA changes its claims as it can be applicable to charity as a means to do good in general. Pete Mills (2012, pp. 5) writes that: 

Professional philanthropy does not just involve making your peace with the system – it means embracing it. The unstated imperative: don’t rock the boat. As a banker, or a corporate lawyer, or a management consultant, what enriches you is your position in a set of profoundly exploitative social relations, which we might label capitalism…The good that a professional philanthropist does depends on perpetuating a system which immiserates a vast portion of the world’s population.  

That 80,000 Hours has no longer strongly encouraged individuals to take a lucrative job that causes social harm and to donate a significant portion of their salaries to the most effective charities does not alter the fact that charity is generally about the better off, including those taking a lucrative yet morally questionable job, helping the badly off with their wealth. If we believe that charity serves as a justified means to address global poverty, it seems to imply we also believe that redistribution of wealth can make up for the social harm caused in the economic system. But proponents of the institutional critique would very likely take issue with this implication and argue that redistribution of wealth via charity cannot fully restore justice, and it cannot be fully restored without institutional change. This will be further explained in the next section. 

 

III. On the institutional critique of EA

Evaluating effective giving: equality of what? 

            In response to the institutional critique in relation to effective giving, Brian Berkey (2018) writes the following: 

On this view, individuals’ efforts to improve the lives of those who are victims of unjust institutions, such as voluntarily directing resources to such people, either do not in fact do much, if anything, to eliminate injustice, or, more strongly, cannot, as a conceptual matter, make an unjust society any less unjust…It seems to me that this view is difficult to defend, since it requires holding that even every substantial voluntary redistribution of resources from the unjustly advantaged to the unjustly disadvantaged would not make things any better in respect of justice, even if it had the effect of dramatically improving the quality of life for the (previously) badly off. (pp. 165)

While I concede that the redistribution of resources from the better off to the badly off might make things better in respect of justice if justice is partly about promoting the redistribution of resources and/or increased equality of resources, the crux of the matter is that whether justice is really only about redistributing resources and/or increasing equality of resources. A proponent of the institutional critique would probably say ‘no’, as they, I believe, based on their line of reasoning, would argue that ex post distribution of resources or compensation is just not good enough. Instead, justice cannot be fully achieved, unless, from their perspective, people are able to, in the beginning, pursue lives of robust and individual agency. By ‘justice’ here, proponents of the institutional critique do not refer to equality of resources but equality of social standing and relations among people. 

An example would be useful to illustrate their reasoning for having such conception of ‘justice’. Imagine that there are two policies to alleviate poverty in a country. The first is to increase rates of unionization, which help to boost workers’ bargaining power and wages, and the second to leave rates of unionization low and does not help workers increase their bargaining power, but it pays a wage subsidy in the form of a government transfer payment to compensate the damage wrought by an unjust labour market (O’Neill, 2016). The wage gain for workers is the same no matter which policy is adopted. While an effective altruist might be indifferent to which policy they should choose in this case since the amount of good (which is measured, at least tentatively, in welfarist terms) produced from either policy is the same, it seems to me that proponents of the institutional critique would prefer the first policy to the second one. The difference between these two policies is that, they might argue, the former would help to prevent workers from social domination and damage wrought by an unjust, poorly regulated labour market whereas the latter would simply leave workers subject to that as the status quo does. This implies that subsidy is compensatory in nature, and cannot change the social ballgame in which workers have no choice but to work in, say, sweatshop conditions whereas corporations can get away with it (O’Neill, 2016). By contrast, to proponents of the institutional critique, not only would the first policy foster equality of resources, but also equality of social relationships. As they would argue, equality of social relations morally matters and cannot be reduced to equality of resources because equality of social relations concerns what we should or should not do to others, and vice versa, and such problem cannot be fully captured or addressed simply by discussing how resources should be redistributed. If ethics is about the caring of ourselves and others, it seems that discussions on our social relations with others would be inevitable and necessary.

Such reasoning can be similarly applied to explain why proponents of the institutional critique usually find the idea of donations or charity unappealing but that of institutional change promising. We are not creating a social setting in which the badly off would be protected from social domination, and able to lead their lives with robust, individual agency independent of donations directed from the better off if charity alone serves as the primary way to alleviate global poverty. Additionally, while there are other forms of help available such as malaria prevention and rehydration therapy in addition to donation or pure cash transfer, there is no denying that social domination still exists in the presence of these other forms of help. In other words, there would be little chance for the badly off to lift themselves out of poverty on their own if we were to maintain the status quo (in terms of social structures and setting). More importantly, unlike government subsidies in the above case, donations are voluntary in nature, assuming that EA is not, as MacAskill (2019) writes, a set of normative claims. This implies that without institutional change, whether the quality of life and welfare of the badly off can be increased would largely depend on the donations from the better off. In this sense, there would be a lack of equality between the badly off and the better off even after the ex post redistribution of resources because in terms of social standing, charity seems to have rendered the badly off socially subordinate to the better off – how good the quality of life of the badly off would be very much out of their own hands, but would be mainly in the hands of the better off. 

An important implication of the above for EA is that global poverty cannot be fully addressed by charity without institutional change if it is the case that institutional change can lead to more equalitarian social relationships among individuals, because poverty is not just an issue of money, but also an issue of social relationships among individuals. Having more equalitarian social relationships might mean that we can live together in ways that “avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains” (O’Neill, 2016). 

To ensure that the badly off can live a life of robust, individual agency, what we need is therefore not just more evenly distributed economic rewards, but more importantly, more egalitarian social relationships, and that the more evenly distributed economic rewards would have to be the result of more egalitarian social relationships rather than that of charity (O’Neill, 2016). As I have explained above, charity itself cannot foster equality of social standing between the badly off and the better off. What we need for that would be institutional change. This might mean we have to expend effort fixing poorly regulated markets, reviewing monetary policy, promoting fairer trades, improving the working conditions and bargaining power of labour, rethinking corporate governance, etc (O’Neill, 2016). This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the kinds of institutional change that would promote more egalitarian social relationships, but these are some of the ideas that EA should consider and work on if global poverty is to be fully addressed. 

Imagine that, however, for the sake of argument, a country adopting the second policy, with lower rates of unionization, is more economically efficient, but involves the creation of jobs and working environments that are in whatever ways sites of domination, and injurious to the self-respect of workers (O’Neill, 2016). Those who only cares about how well off people are left overall might think that we can trade off better working conditions or social relations against better overall economic outcomes, and compensate workers for the domination they endure at work by accordingly increasing their wage subsidy. But the egalitarian significance of people’s social status and relations and self-respect might not, as a proponent of institutional change would argue, be able to be reduced to, measured in, or captured by monetary terms, and one’s level of well-being is not just linked to his overall economic status only, but also his ability to have some control over one’s life and his interpersonal relations with others. A more respectful working environment might thus become necessary even if it incurs some cost in terms of economic efficiency if we are to cherish equality of social relations. The same might go for charity. Imagine that a world without institutional change is more economically efficient, but the badly off will have to experience social domination and injuries to their self-respect in their everyday life. Can we really compensate the badly off simply with donations directed from the better off for living in a world like this? I will leave the answer to you. 

For the sake of argument, consider how someone in defence of charity would respond to the argument I outline above: while it is true that charity might not be able to fully restore justice as it might not be able to increase equality of social standing and relations, EA does not claim to be able to solve all the problems in the world, nor does EA claim that charity can be the way of achieving full justice. Given that effective charity does in fact dramatically improve the quality of life of the badly off and increase equality of resources among individuals, there are not any reasons for rejecting charity. 

For my argument against charity to carry some weight, I would like to defend the following assumption: addressing poverty by charity without changing the political and economic status quo would in the long term make it harder to address other issues like political problems, with the most important one being the decline of democratic accountability of the state systems which fail to deliver the promised services. It would in the long term result in decreased quality of life among the most disadvantaged because the state systems would not be held accountable for their failing to provide the promised services. This would be further explained in the next part regarding the political and economic reasons for promoting institutional change. 

But I do agree with Berkey that the fact that we should in the long run promote institutional change does not necessarily imply that the moral burdens on individuals are reduced in conditions in which well-functioning institutions do not yet exist (Berkey, 2018). It would be morally dangerous for proponents of the institutional critique to think of the solution to global poverty as ‘all-or-nothing’ that we should either promote institutional change or do nothing. While it might be true that donations to charities can only better foster equality of resources rather than equality of social relations, doing nothing is far worse than donating to charity because it can foster neither of them. The argument against charity is that it might not be the best way to address global poverty, not that it is the wrong way to address it, so it seems to me that the fact that the best efforts to address global poverty should be institutional rather than individual should not stop us from donating to charities in conditions in which there are not any well-functioning institutions available. 

While I argue that equality of social standing is what we should ultimately strive for through institutional change, I concede that many other questions concerning institutional change remain open and are worth our attention: 

  1. Should or can meritocracy be practiced if we are to promote better equality of social standing? Are they mutually exclusive? (It might be argued that meritocracy, which rewards individuals based on their natural talent, would do a disservice to promoting equality of social standing because research shows that ‘poverty changes the way children’s brains develop, shrinking parts of the brain essential for memory, planning, and decision-making’ (Mariani, 2017; Rocheleau, 2019). In other words, when individuals were rewarded based on their natural talent, it could be the case they were actually rewarded based on their family backgrounds as intelligence and household income level seem to correlate. Meritocracy might therefore be detrimental to promoting equality of social standing among individuals of different social classes as the rewarding system itself shows favouritism towards those coming from a wealthy background.) Even if they are not, does increased equality of social standing always lead to increased equality of resources? Assuming that the answer to the first question is ‘yes’, can it be the case that there is better equality of social standing without better equality of resources when meritocracy is practiced (because financial rewards are based on people’s natural talent)? What is exactly the goal we should aspire to? A fair competition for financial rewards? A guarantee of better equality of resources among people? If meritocracy is not ‘fair’, on what basis should we reward people? 
     
  2. Should there be a certain upper limit of valuable goods, like income and wealth, that people can possess so as to ensure better equality of resources as well as equality of social standing and relations? Some argue that ‘in the world as it is, no one should have more than a certain upper limit of valuable goods, in particular, income and wealth’ (Robeyns, 2016; 2019). This view is known as ‘economic limitarianism’. On what grounds can such a limit be imposed on others? One of the arguments in favour of economic limitarianism in relations to equality of social standing and relations goes like this: “…from the relational egalitarian point of view…citizens cannot relate to each other as equals if their financial differences are too large, or from the value of freedom as non-domination…securing non-domination requires that no one should have too much money to allow them to exert genuine and structural power over other citizens’ (Robeyns, 2019). The relational egalitarian point of view gives us an valuable insights into the relations between equality of resources and equality of social standing and relations: the latter might not be achieved if inequality of resources among individuals was highly significant. This is something EA should take notice of when implementing institutional change. EA should, for instance, observe whether there is better equality of resources when institutional change occurs as equality of resources and equality of social standing and relations seem to correlate. There is also, however, an objection to economic limitarianism, and it goes like this: “…economic limitarianism will lead to levelling down the living standards of a large group of people, since the economically most productive will lack the proper economic incentives, which will negatively impact aggregate production’ (Robeyns, 2019). I do not intend to deal with the arguments here. What I am intending to show here is that whether economic limitarianism as a means to promote both equality of resources and social standing and relations is justified remains open. But even if such a limit is justified, we might still ask if it is applicable on a global scale.

These are just a few practical yet very difficult problems that we need to consider, or ‘institutional change’ would become a thin concept without substantive content.

Political and economic drive to make institutional change more effective

 In formulating the argument of the institutional critique, Berkey (2018) writes the following: 

There are…claims that all of the proponents of the institutional critique seem to endorse:

IC1: There are strong moral reasons for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional reform, rather than directing the same resources and time to providing aid to those living in poverty (e.g. by  donating to some of the organizations recommended by effective altruists)… (pp. 152)

I would like to argue, however, that it is not necessarily true that all of the proponents of the institutional critique would endorse or would have to endorse IC1. A proponent of the institutional critique can believe that there are only strong political and economic reasons (rather than moral ones) for individuals to do what IC1 suggests. In other words, that one might find the moral grounds held by proponents of institutional critique for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional change unjustified does not necessarily imply that one is justified in fully rejecting the institutional critique (unless one can reject all the other reasons for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional change). So even if none of the moral grounds for justifying individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional change as argued in the earlier part is justified, proponents of the institutional critique can still defend their stances on the grounds that there are strong political and economic reasons for institutional change. 

The political and economic reasons for institutional change are best summarized by Jeff McMahan (2016): 

 [D]evelopmental economists have, for example, indicated ways in which the efforts of philanthropists, acting through the agency of NGOs, have conflicted with and partly undermined the potentially more effective activities of other agents, particularly representatives of states. And they offer strong evidence that these same activities can retard progress in the long term by helping to keep popular discontent in impoverished societies at containable levels, thereby enabling local dictators to sustain the practices and institutions that keep the population in poverty. Furthermore, by supplying much of what the local government should be providing for its people, foreign aid, whether from NGOs or other states, may enable dictators to use the resources they can gather from domestic sources for the purchase of weapons and the employment of soldiers, again enabling them to resist pressures to change the practices and institutions that perpetuate extreme poverty (pp. 7). 

All the other points are very straightforward except for the first one, which requires more explanations. As far as the first point is concerned, Emily Clough (2015) explains in detail how the efforts of NGOs can undermine the more effective activities of the citizens in their own countries:    

In the worst case, the presence of NGOs induces exit from the state sector.  When relatively efficient, well-functioning NGOs enter a health or education market, for example, citizens in that market who are paying attention are likely to switch from government services to NGO services. The result is a disengagement of the most mobilized, discerning poor citizens from the state. These are the citizens most likely to have played a previous role in monitoring the quality of state services and advocating for improvements. Once they exit, the pressure on the government to maintain and improve services eases, and the quality of government provision is likely to fall.

One villager I interviewed—an esteemed local elder, and one of the best advocates for education in the village—told me that before the NGO school opened, his grandchildren attended a nearby government school, and he used to conduct daily monitoring visits there. But when the NGO school opened, he was one of the first to shift his grandchildren out of the government school in favor of higher-quality facilities and more accountable teachers at the NGO school… When citizens exit the state system, they are much less likely to use their political voice to push for improvements in that system. Those who are left behind tend to be poorer and less mobilized. When service quality falls in the absence of vigilant oversight, the most disadvantaged fall further still.

The main idea is that when NGOs can be ‘substituted’ for the government in a sense that NGOs have fulfilled the role that the government should have fulfilled, citizens, especially those who are not most in need of services but are particularly good at seeking out the best services, tend to leave the state system and turn to NGOs for better services. Once they leave the state system, the political voice to push for improvements in that system declines and the quality of services provided by the state drops without the monitoring of the citizens. The most disadvantaged are therefore left behind when those good at seeking out the best services leave the state system. In other words, the efforts of philanthropists acting through the agency of NGOs may backfire as those at the bottom can suffer from having worse government services because of it.  

That citizens tend to leave the state system and are therefore no longer motivated to monitor the state service quality in the presence of NGOs implies that when EA takes over the duty of the states to alleviate poverty by providing direct services to the poor, democratic accountability is likely to be undermined – citizens are no longer motivated to exercise their citizenship to demand from the governments the promised services. The crux of the matter is that, as Clough (2015) points out, there is a political dimension to poverty, which is the power structures that create and sustain systems of poverty. Merely providing direct services to the poor through NGOs as a non-political means to address poverty therefore leaves untouched the power structures that create and sustain systems of poverty. If such power structures are to be dismantled, we must be able and motivated to hold the state systems accountable. This shows that instead of directing substantial funding to provide direct services to the poor through NGOs, EA should “invest in initiatives that strengthen, rather than weaken, democratic channels of accountability that demand improvements in the government’s systems of public health, sanitation, and basic welfare services” (Clough, 2015). In other words, political reform is what EA should aim at if global poverty is to be solved thoroughly. 

What this line of thinking has shown is that there seems to be some causal relations between NGO aids and the decline in state provision of public goods. For the sake of argument, however, consider a counterargument against such causal relations. It might go like this: if we are to fully establish such causal relations, it is necessary to consider the counterfactuals. Would citizens necessarily demand more from the government, and would the government necessarily be responsive to the demands and therefore provide better services if there were no NGOs working at all? It seems prima facie true to say that we should not expect this to happen. The government might well remain undemocratic, leaving its citizens worse off than they could have been. Such causal relations thus might not be fully established. I concede that this is a difficult problem that I do not have much confidence in solving. A possible response to this might go like this: while such causal relations might not exist, NGO aids and the decline in state provision of public goods roughly correlate that the former exacerbates the latter. But still, it is hard to say whether the former should take the blame for the latter after we give such a response. This is a question that remains open, and it is a question of great significance as it may lead proponents of the institutional critique to reconsider their arguments against charity. 

EA may also respond to all the arguments in favour of institutional change as presented above very easily by saying something like this: efforts to promote institutional change are very unlikely to succeed in the real world. While effective donation may not be able to fully address global poverty in terms of equality of social standing and democratic accountability, it is at least workable in practice and does dramatically improve the quality of life of the badly off in some ways. EA as a social movement inevitably has to take into consideration how likely certain effort is going to pay off. This is why efforts to promote effective donation are preferable to efforts to promote institutional change despite the fact that the former has many limitations. 

I have always found the argument concerning the (in)feasibility of institutional change puzzling. And very often the dispute between proponents of the institutional critique and opponents of it has been painted like this: while the proponents are easily accused of having unrealistic expectations about how big or fundamental a change we are likely to bring about, or worse, not even taking into account the likelihood of success of institutional change when making such a critique, the opponents are accused of only working within the scope of what is likely to succeed and can therefore bring the most good for real, which leaves the ‘root’ cause of a problem untouched. 

If the way we perceive the dispute between the two parties is correct, it seems to me that EA would inevitably fall into a dilemma like this: we either opt for the most ‘effective’ (in terms of how likely it is to succeed and how much good it can bring about) way to do good at the expense of leaving untouched the social and political status quo, or we opt for the ‘best’ (in terms of its effect in the long run and the degree to which it can address the problem in theory, regardless of how likely it is going to succeed) way to do good, no matter how unlikely it is going to succeed. 

I believe this is not a good way of thinking. Consider donation again. Research shows that people often donate to charities that saves fewer lives, or otherwise do less good than the most effective ones, and it is due to the psychological as well as evolutionary barriers to EA. Common explanations for ineffective giving include donors often have multiple misconceptions concerning disaster relief, overhead costs, donation splitting, and the relativeness effectiveness of local and foreign charities, donors often view donations as a matter of personal preferences, which favours decisions based on emotional appeal rather than effectiveness, donors are more sensitive to efficacy only when helping themselves or their families, and social rewarders do not condition on efficacy or other difficult-to-observe behaviours, just to name a few (Burum, Nowak & Hoffman, 2020; Caviola, Schubert & Nemirow, 2020; Caviola, Schubert & Greene, 2021). Given that there are so many psychological and evolutionary barriers to effective giving, EA does not, however, conclude that charity as a means to do the most good is ineffective and we should therefore find alternative ways to do the most good. 

As a matter of fact, psychologists, Lucius Caviola in particular, have always tried to develop strategies to increase the effectiveness of giving among donors based on the findings of what makes giving ineffective. Caviola, Schubert and Greene (2021) suggest seven strategies to encourage donors to give more effectively, namely (i) informing donors about which charities are most effective and dispel misconceptions about effectiveness, (ii) redesigning choice architectures by setting choices of the most effective donations as the default behaviour, (iii) incentivising effective donation through donor tax reductions, (iv) using ‘unit asking’ techniques (i.e. ‘ask donors how much they would give to help one person in need before asking them how much they would give to help a group of a specified size’ (pp. 602-3) to increase donors’ inclinations to raise their donations proportionally with group size, (v) splitting donations that causes people to allot some, rather than none, of their money to a highly effective charity, (vi) using philosophical reasoning, and (vii) changing the prevailing altruistic norms that emphasize self-sacrifice rather than effectiveness. 

I wonder why the same cannot go for institutional change. Just like effective giving, the fact that institutional change in general has not been highly successful so far does not necessarily mean that we should give up on it. What EA can and should consider doing through scientific research, if political science also counts as science, is to investigate what makes institutional change fail and how we can make it more effective. (While it is true there are institutions like Global Priorities Institute trying to work on this area, it is fair to say that it is a nascent field in which many problems in regard to institutional change remain open and are therefore worth our attention). This is also why I find another argument by Berkey concerning the feasibility of institutional change unconvincing. Berkey (2018) writes: 

Working with others who are committed to a cause, organizing new collective   efforts where they do not already exist, and engaging in efforts to persuade others to join in collective efforts to promote justice via institutional reform are options to be considered. But, as individuals, we often cannot be certain that enough others will be willing to join in any particular collective effort for that effort to be likely enough to succeed to justify investing substantial time and resources in it. And, typically, we cannot simply force others to contribute to the collective efforts that we favor when we find that they are unwilling to contribute voluntarily (pp. 154). 

Berkey has reeled off a list of obstacles of making institutional change happen, and the obstacles mainly lie in how collective efforts are possible. But again, why can’t we develop strategies to reduce the barriers that prevent institutional change from happening, just like how Caviola develops strategies to promote more effective giving? I would like to comment on the last point Berkey makes in particular. That we cannot simply force others to contribute to the collective efforts that we favor when we find that they are unwilling to contribute voluntarily does not necessarily mean that we cannot nudge others to do so. In fact, (ii) and (iv) that Caviola proposes to increase the effectiveness of giving are forms of nudging. If nudging can be used in promoting effective giving, it may also be used in promoting institutional change. This is an area researchers can investigate in the future if we are to make institutional change more effective by considering how to attract others to take part in the collective effort. 

Consider, however, a counterfactual: if the likelihood of success of effective giving was significantly greater than that of success of institutional change, and the expected value of effective giving was also significantly greater than that of institutional change after researchers had already developed strategies to better promote institutional change, should EA still opt for institutional change? This is to ask: were the political and economic reasons for institutional change as outlined above strong enough that we should opt for institutional change even though there was a significantly higher chance for effective giving to succeed and the expected value of effective giving was also significantly higher after researchers had developed strategies to better promote institutional change? I do not intend to deal with this difficult question in this paper, but I would like to point out that if we are to answer such question, we may need to consider what the minimum expected value of institutional change and the lowest probability of success of institutional change should be so that it makes it worth trying. 

For the sake of argument, consider how someone against institutional change might respond to my earlier claim that ‘the fact that institutional change in general has not been highly successful so far does not necessarily mean that we should give up on it’: there have been poor records of institutional change. Almost all historical attempts to radically change the political, social and/or economic systems ended up in a disaster that caused enormous social harm. It might therefore not be worth the risk to promote institutional change. A possible response to this might go like this: repeated failures to implement radical institutional change in the past might give us a good reason to entirely give up on institutional change only if institutional change must be revolutionary or predominately revolutionary, which is radical in nature. If there is, however, another pattern of institutional change available, we might not have to fully reject institutional change. This point will be further explained in the next part. 

Institutional change, once successful, can help to lift millions of people out of poverty on a sustainable basis (Clemens, 2011; Gabriel, 2016), and as I have argued above, there may be strong political and economic reasons for promoting institutional change. Bringing together my argument for the political and economic reasons for promoting institutional change and my argument against the infeasibility of institutional change, I therefore conclude that EA should consider expending efforts to promote institutional reform by developing strategies to increase the likelihood of its success and make it more effective through research. 

‘institutional change’ versus ‘revolution’ 

I would like to examine the concept ‘institutional change’ in this final part. To begin with, whenever I finished reading papers on the institutional critique of EA, I have always felt that my understanding of what ‘institutional change’ is or could be like did not deepen. And consider the language used when institutional change is discussed: 

Even if the success of an anti-capitalist revolution would be a good thing, if there are not nearly enough committed revolutionaries to make the prospects for a successful revolution greater than infinitesimal, and there are good reasons to expect this to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, then it seems clear that joining the revolutionary cause would not be the morally best use of one’s time, energy, and resources (Berkey, 2018, pp. 158). 

What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary?... It’s hard enough to quantify the value of a philanthropic intervention: how would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganizing society? (Srinivasan, 2015, pp. 6) 

Both proponents and opponents of the institutional critique use words like ‘revolution’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘radically (reorganizing society)’ when talking about institutional change. But it is puzzling to me that how ‘institutional change’, at least as a conceptual matter, can be fully equivalent of ‘revolution’, which is, in Srinivasan’s words, ‘radical’ in nature. And on top of this, like what I have said earlier, it seems to me that there is a lack of detailed and clear account of what institutional change is or can be like in the current literature of EA. Specifically, discussions on the extensional and intensional definitions of institutional change are extremely limited. But such discussions matter, especially to proponents of the institutional critique, because if their theses are to carry some weight in influencing how we should do good, they need to explain how and why institutional change, if successful, can best address problems like global poverty, and I doubt that they can offer the explanation without giving a detailed account of what institutional change is or can be like. 

John Campbell (2004) writes about the two main conceptions of ‘institutional change’, namely evolutionary and revolutionary institutional change:

What is institutional change? How do we know it when we see it? What does it look like when it occurs? Is it evolutionary or revolutionary? These questions lie at the heart of much institutional analysis…institutionalists have described and tried to account for different patterns of institutional change, such as evolution and punctuated equilibrium… (p. 31)

…One is continuous (evolutionary) and two are discontinuous (punctuated equilibrium, punctuated evolution). Continuous patterns of change are those that characterize change as a smooth and gradual process whereas those that are discontinuous paint a much different picture consisting of sharp shifts from one institutional arrangement to another (Meyer et al. 1990)… (p. 32)

…[R]evolutionary change or punctuated equilibrium consists of simultaneous change across most, if not all, dimensions of an institution over a given period of time; evolutionary change consists of change in only a few of these dimensions over a given period of time; and stability consists of the absence of change in most, if not all, of these dimensions… (p. 32)

Among the most frequently discussed by institutionalists is the incremental or evolutionary pattern. This entails continuous change that proceeds in small, incremental steps along a single path in a certain direction…Change is evolutionary in the sense that today’s institutional arrangements differ from but still closely resemble yesterday’s because they have inherited many of their predecessors’ characteristics… (pp. 33)

Three points to be made here. First, that institutional change can be either evolutionary or revolutionary implies that ‘institutional change’ and ‘revolution’ are not fully interchangeable as this would fail to capture the evolutionary aspect of institutional change. It is therefore a mistake for (at least some) philosophers to use the concept ‘institutional change’ loosely without being sensitive to its substantive content. Second, compared to what Campbell describes as revolutionary institutional change, which might be ‘radical’ in nature in terms of the pace and scope of change, it seems that an evolutionary kind of institutional change is relatively moderate in nature. It is therefore not appropriate to assume that institutional change is necessarily radical in nature as both proponents and opponents of institutional critique do. Third, sociologists have investigated how frequently different patterns of institutional change tend to occur, and some have argued that ‘evolution is the norm and that even apparently revolutionary periods during which change seems to be radical and abrupt often turn out to be quite evolutionary upon further inspection’ (North 1998, pp. 19-20; 1990, pp. 90; Riker, 1998, as cited in Campbell, 2004, pp. 33). In other words, not only is ‘revolution’ not fully interchangeable with ‘institutional change’, but it is also not the predominant type of institutional change. It seems to me that philosophers often have a limited understanding of institutional change itself as they, based on their writings on institutional change, tend to mistakenly believe that institutional change must be revolutionary or predominately revolutionary. The point I am trying to make here is that without a sound understanding of what institutional change is or can be like, it would be very difficult to offer a strong institutional critique that informs EA of in what ways institutional change of different kinds can help us do good effectively. Also, if there is another conception of institutional change available (other than institutional change as ‘revolution’), it means that the scope of our enquiry on institutional change will be widened as researchers can investigate how different types of institutional change work and how we can make the most of it. 

I think there is prima facie evidence to say that an evolutionary kind of institutional change has more potentials than a revolutionary one. Apart from the fact that, as mentioned above, sociologists argue that institutional change tends to be primarily evolutionary, a revolutionary type of institutional change would probably bring disastrous consequences to our public life if its practice fell short of the deal, given its scale and pace of change. An evolutionary kind of institutional change might therefore be a safer option to consider. 

If an evolutionary type of institutional change is what EA should strive for, EA, I believe, should try to investigate the following six main areas through research: 

  1. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an evolutionary type of institutional change to occur? How do we know that it occurs when it does occur?
  2. What would such institutional change be like in the context of addressing global poverty?
  3. Can such institutional change help to address global poverty? If yes, how?
  4. What are the major barriers to implementing such institutional change?
  5. How to overcome the barriers thereto so as to make the implementation of such change more effectively?
  6. What are the potential consequences if its practice falls short of the ideal? How can we minimize the negative effects of a badly implemented institutional change on our public life?

If research shows that an evolutionary kind of institutional change is workable and can be implemented to do good more effectively on a sustainable basis by, for example, better addressing global poverty than effective giving, EA may have a good reason to divert more resources to promote an evolutionary kind of institutional change.  

While it is true that there is a cause area in EA called ‘Improving Institutional Decision-Making’, which aims at ‘making it easier for key institutions and decision-makers to solve problems…helping people avoid common thinking errors, better evaluate expertise, or make more accurate predictions…[and] finding ways to change the incentives of big organisations to make it easier to do all these things’ (Whittlestone, 2017), it cannot be denied that even scholars like philosophers tend to have misconceptions about institutional change in the presence of such cause area. I therefore doubt that the public in general would have a sound understanding of institutional change. If ‘helping people avoid common thinking errors’ is limited to ‘helping decision-makers to avoid common thinking errors’, EA as a social movement might end up exerting less influence over how we can do the most good than it could have exerted had it been more inclusive. This implies that apart from ‘more rigorously testing existing techniques that seem promising, doing more fundamental research to identify new techniques, fostering adoption of the best proven techniques in high impact areas, and directing more funding towards all of the above’ (Whittlestone, 2017), which the cause area has already been working on, it should consider sharing knowledge of institution change, decision making, and so forth with individuals other than decision makers so that more individuals will have the opportunity to appropriate, use, and develop further the knowledge they have gained, which would be beneficial to promoting institutional change.  

Having said that, I concede that there are far more problems to be solved if institutional change is to be taken seriously. First, consider what someone against institutional change might say in regard to the problems of implementing institutional change. Their argument might go like this: ‘that an evolutionary kind of institutional change might bring less undesirable consequences to us than a revolutionary one when its practice fell short of the ideal does not necessarily imply that an ill-implemented evolutionary one would not bring us any undesirable consequences at all. While the political and economic status quo, in which injustice, regardless of what it precisely means, has been committed, would remain if we were to address global poverty without institutional change, not only would an intuitional change of any kind fail to restore justice, but it would also bring additional undesirable consequences to our public life when its practice fell short of the ideal. If it is true that the error of omission is less egregious than the error of commission, and we are uncertain about how likely an institutional change is going to implement well, charity would be a less egregious option than institutional change in addressing global poverty. I do not intend to deal with this argument here, but I believe that for our response to such argument to carry weight, we need to answer two main questions: 

  1. If we are to implement institutional change of any kind in a responsible manner, how certain (e.g. 80% credence?) should we be about the likelihood of success thereof in order to implement it in practice? Suppose there is 1% chance that the implementation of institutional change would fail or did not go well and therefore result in undesirable social consequences, should we give up on it? How much risk is worth it when we consider implementing institutional change?
  2. Is it always true that the error of omission is less egregious than the error of commission?

Second, we inevitably have to answer one important question: if a change is a process of changing from X to Y, and if X represents global capitalism, regardless of it really means, what should Y be? Non-capitalism? Anti-capitalism? Capitalism that is better implemented? An eclectic approach (i.e. having a hybrid of social and economic systems)? An even more fundamental question is that when I say ‘we inevitably have to answer one important question’, who does ‘we’ exactly refer to? If EA as a social movement is to be more inclusive, should ‘we’ include those that are not members of the EA community? Institutional change would not be possible without considering these questions carefully. 

Conclusion

To conclude, I have presented three theses in regard to the institutional critique of EA by evaluating the arguments on the institutional critique by Brian Berkey.

First, I argue that Brian Berkey’s defence of effective giving can at best claim that charity can partly restore justice by better promoting equality of resources, but it cannot claim that charity can fully restore justice by better promoting both equality of resources and social standing and relations. Justice cannot be fully restored, I argue, without institutional change.

Second, I argue that it is not necessarily true that all proponents of institutional critique would endorse that, as Berkey claims, there are strong moral reasons for individuals to direct resources and time to efforts to promote institutional reform (IC1), because proponents of the institutional critique could believe that there are only (non-moral) political and economic reasons for individuals to do so (IC1). If there are strong political and economic reasons for individuals to do so (IC1), EA may need to consider expending efforts to promote institutional change by developing strategies to increase the likelihood of its success and make it more effective through research

Third, I argue that philosophers (including not only those who defend EA against the institutional critique like Brian Berkey, but also those who are proponents of the institutional critique like Amia Srinivasan) tend to have a limited understanding of what institutional change is or can be like as they often use the term ‘institutional change’ loosely by conflating it with ‘revolution’. This shows that they are insensitive to the evolutionary aspect of institutional change and mistakenly think that institutional change must be revolutionary or primarily revolutionary. As sociologists argue that institutional change is primarily evolutionary and it is prima facie true that an evolutionary kind of institutional change is a safer option to consider compared to a revolutionary one, EA should develop a better understanding of an evolutionary kind of institutional change and investigate how we can better implement it by research, and share knowledge of institutional change and decision making with more individuals other than decision makers so that EA as a social movement could exert stronger influence on the way we do good effectively. If research shows that an evolutionary type of institutional change can help us do good more effectively on a sustainable basis, EA may have a good reason to divert more resources to promote such institutional change. 

In addition to the three theses, I also raise various questions regarding the implementation of institutional change in real life, with the most important questions being what the change precisely is (i.e. from capitalism to…?) and who should decide the change. All these questions remain open, and need to be addressed carefully if we are to implement institutional change well to address global problems like poverty. 

References

Berkey, B. (2018). The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism. Utilitas, 30(2), 143-170. 

Burum, B., Nowak, A. M., & Hoffman, M. (2020). An evolutionary explanation for  ineffective altruism. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(12), 1245-57. 

Campbell, J. L. (2004). Institutional change and Globalization. Princeton University Press. 

Caviola, L., Schubert, S., & Greene, J. D. (2021). The psychology of (in)effective altruism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(7), 596–607. 

Caviola, L., Schubert, S., & Nemirow, J. (2020). The many obstacles to effective giving. Judgment and Decision Making, 15(2), 159–172.

Clemens, M. (2011). Economics and emigration: Trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk? The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(3), 83-106. 

Clough, E. (14 July 2015). Effective Altruism’s Political Blind Spot. Boston Review. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://bostonreview.net/articles/emily-clough-effective-altruism-ngos/

Gabriel, I. (2017). Effective Altruism and its Critics. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), 457-473.

Harvard Law School Effective Altruism. (n.d.). What is Effective Altruism? Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://orgs.law.harvard.edu/effectivealtruism/about-us/about-effective-altruism/

Herzog, L. (21 October 2015). (One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from http://justice-everywhere.org/international/one-of-effective-altruisms-blind-spots-or-why-moral-theory-needs-institutional-theory/

MacAskill, W. (2016). Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back (Reprint ed.). Penguin Publishing Group.

MacAskill, W. (2019). The Definitions of Effective Altruism. In H. Greaves & T. Pummer (Eds.), Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues (pp. 10-28). OUP.

Mariani, M. (13 July 2017). The neuroscience of inequality: does poverty show up in  children's brains? Retrieved August 30, 2022, from
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McMahan, J. (2016). Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism. Retrieved August 
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Robeyns, I. (2016). Having too much. In J. Knight and M. Schwartzberg (eds.) NOMOS LVI: Wealth. Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy. New York University Press. 

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